“When the ancient Masters said,
‘If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,’
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
Can you be truly yourself.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
How much this last line sounds like St. Paul’s “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”! In chapter 19 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked by a young rich man how to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Do you follow the commandments?” Jesus asks him. Check! But then Jesus makes a more exacting demand, asking the man to sell all of his possessions. Exit young rich man stage right.
This story—combined with the phrase that it will be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle—Is typically invoked to illustrate the idea that wealth if frowned upon in Christian teaching and, more generally, that it is incompatible with the moral and religious life. God or Mammon. But that is not the sense of the story.
Jesus is testing the young man to see how attached he is to his possessions. The story is not about the man’s net worth—it’s about the state of his soul. Put another way, the way to read the first beatitude—blessed are the poor in spirit—is that it calls for spiritual, not material, poverty: an empty, open, free soul unattached to power, property, profit, and prestige.
Jesus is calling the young man to “empty” himself, not to empty his coffers.
This is the same emptying to which the Daodejing is calling us. The demand sounds extreme only because, like the young man, we imagine it requires some dramatic change in our life circumstances. But what it mainly requires is a shift of perspective, to relate to our life circumstances in a different way. It’s a different kind of hard.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”